Ohio voting-rights advocates decry diminished local control of absentee-ballot distribution
Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinLaw_Thumb1.jpgWhen Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted decided not to allow county boards of elections to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot request forms, he overturned a five-year-old policy that helped encourage over 1.1 million residents in the state to vote early. Last year, absentee voting was responsible for nearly a third of all ballots cast in the state.
The directive was ostensibly issued to promote “uniform” access to the polls, as not all counties chose to participate in the mailings. Early no-fault absentee voting was first instituted in 2006, a response to the long voting lines and confusing policies, such as moving polling locations on Election Day, that marked the 2000 and 2004 elections in Ohio -– a critical swing state that generally plays a powerful role in selecting the President.
Husted struck a deal on the directive after meeting with Cuyahoga County Executive Edward FitzGerald, who had called Husted’s plan for 2011 an “[attempt] at voter suppression.” Provisions of that deal: The directive for 2011 would remain in effect, but efforts for the 2012 election would get funds from the Help America Vote Act, designed to allow states to use federal money to ensure fair access to the polls. But this has not settled well with voting-rights advocates in Ohio.
“I’ve heard [the directive’s intent] expressed as a legal requirement for equal protection, and my understanding is that it does not stand up to that,” said Nancy Brown, co-president of the Ohio chapter of the League of Women Voters, a non-profit that monitors election policy for all voters. She acknowledged that everyone had a basic right to vote but said, “…that doesn’t mean that there can’t be differences that accommodate the needs of individual counties.
“A one-size-fits-all [policy] and dumbing it down to the lowest common denominator is not a good solution,” said Brown.
But in a fair election, shouldn’t everyone get the same opportunities to cast a ballot? Brown doesn’t think that’s necessarily the case. She believes the logistics of operating successful polling are largely dependent on the needs of the area in which the precinct is located.
“There are practical elements in running an election, and the county board of elections is in a much better position to figure out how they can best run their elections,” she said. “What works for a rural county is likely to be very different than what works for a large, urban county.”
A report (PDF) released by The University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics detailed the advantages for voters in allowing no-fault absentee voting for Ohio:
The figures for 2002 (229,512 absentee voters, 3.2% of registered voters and 6.8% of the vote cast) and 2004 (607,636 absentee voters, 7.6% of registered voters and 10.6% of the vote cast) reveal that “no-fault” absentee voting increased the level of early voting substantially. The change between 2002 and 2006 was about 400,000 voters—so that the 2006 off-year election exceeded the number of absentee ballots in the presidential election year of 2004.
Dan Stewart, a former state representative for Ohio’s 25th District, has a darker view of the directive’s intent. He said that it, along with House Bill 194, amount to evidence that Republican lawmakers are making a concerted effort to disenfranchise voters. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, HB 194, an elections-reform bill proposed and passed by Ohio Republicans that is on hold until a referendum vote in November 2012, would make a “variety of misguided changes” to the state’s voting system. Among the changes HB 194 would enact: making absentee ballot application mailings permanently prohibited and reducing the time frame for early voting by more than half. It would also prohibit online voter registration, a practice endorsed (PDF) by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights advocacy group.
In a release, U.S. Representative Marcia L. Fudge wrote the law “threatens” the right to vote, and decried it as one of a trending number of laws introduced by conservatives with items that “seem to have no other purpose than to directly disenfranchise eligible voters.”
Fair Elections Ohio conducted the successful petition drive to place HB 194 on the 2012 ballot.
“Voter suppression is the intention of these rules, and HB 194 does play a part in this respect: there’s been a national effort by Republicans to introduce legislation like HB 194 or to take procedural steps, like this secretary did, to make it more difficult to vote early and to vote absentee, even when it doesn’t make sense,” said Stewart, who was term-limited out of his seat in the Ohio House of Representatives, and is now working as an activist with Working America, a union-backed canvassing organization looking to topple Senate Bill 5, a contentious anti-collective-bargaining law also in referendum, but on this year’s November 8 ballot. The debate over the law, which would severely curtail public employees’ rights to negotiate, has put Ohio in the national spotlight.
But Stewart thinks Republicans, who back SB5 and are trying to keep it on the books with a ‘yes’ vote on the referendum, known as Issue 2, are hoping to stem the number of voters making their way to the polls.
“These are the same kinds of things you are seeing across the country: they’re making more and more stumbling blocks, and areas where people can lose their vote because they didn’t cross the ‘t’ or dot their ‘i’ exactly correctly. Do you really want to disqualify a World War II veteran because he made some non-fatal flaw on the envelope?” he asked, referring to HB 194.
Stewart said it’s “hypocritical” for Republicans like Husted, who typically advocate small government and greater local autonomy, to hinder counties from making the decision to send out the ballot applications for themselves.
“If the majority (of counties) say it does help us to send out absentee ballots, it does help out and shortens lines, they should be able to do that,” he said, adding Husted’s directive was already having an effect on this year’s election.
“One thing you may have found is that, in terms of Franklin County’s early vote, it’s much higher this year than in other off-year elections. I guess it’s maybe even as high as what they had in the gubernatorial election,” said Stewart. “However, absentee voting is way down, and I bet it’s because a lot of people were waiting for the application that they usually get, and it just never came.”